Baghdad: City of Walls, part 2: Crossing the wall

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Eight new ghettos divide Baghdad’s Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods. In the second film of his City of Walls series Ghaith Abdul-Ahad looks across the wall from Sunni Khaadimiyah to Shia Khazira, where murder, hatred and division are perilously close to the surface. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from his hometown in thesecond part of his City of Walls video series.

Story Transcript

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, THE GUARDIAN: Brother of a friend of mine was picked up from this street. He came to see some of his friends. He was a Sunni. And he was kidnapped in the street. For weeks, his relatives—his brothers and cousins—trying to negotiate with the militia that kidnapped him, trying to get him released. They werehave bargaining over money and everything. By the time they reached a deal, kind of, his body was found, and he was killed two weeks earlier. He was 21 years old. He was kidnapped exactly here. I’m on my way to northeastern Baghdad, to the walls that separate Sunni Adhamiyah from Shia Qahira. As we drive, the walls begin to dominate the city landscape. For me, they have become the physical symbol of the division between Sunni and Shia. Twelve foot high and made of concrete to withstand any bomb blast, these ugly gray slabs now slice of Baghdad. At least 11 de facto ghettos, both Sunni and Shia, have been created, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off all normal communications. The walls were built by the Americans to try to contain the growing violence between Sunni and Shia. But all these walls have really done is to create a phony kind of peace. And it’s true it is hard to kill a neighbor if you have to scale a 12 foot wall to get to him. In Adhamiyah, the awakening council commander takes me in his car for my protection.

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ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): These walls—I feel like I’m in Palestine or Gaza. Have you seen it there?

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It’s worse than Palestine here. What has happened in Iraq is much worse. But no one is telling the truth about what is happening here.

ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): When we get there, it’s a shock. I used to pass by this bridge every day on my way to school. Sometimes I would eat my lunch here. Now the footbridge is locked. It’s unbelievable.

MAN: Sunni and Shia, we all used to serve in the army together. At school, we never knew who was Sunni or who was Shia. This division between us never existed before. The government has created it. These walls should be pulled down.

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ABDUL-AHAD: It was time to see the Shia side of the wall on the other side of the footbridge. Qahira is now a stronghold of the Mehdi Army, loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. So I have to switch my identity, become a Shia instead of a Sunni, put on Shia rings, and use a different ID card. And on the way, my new guide tells me a horrifying story about the road we are driving on.

ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Has this place being used for assassinations?

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Oh, yes.

ABDUL-AHAD: Like, you find bodies here?

MAN: Yes. Most of the time you find five bodies killed execution style by using plastic tape. They don’t use a gun; they wrapped their heads and sticky tape to asphyxiate them. We don’t know where they are from.

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ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): We’ve just switched cars. We came to this car. Our guide is in the other car with two of the local neighborhood militia. We’re entering Qahira now. This is the first checkpoint leading into this area. As we can see from the pictures, Muqtada al-Sadr is the dominant figure here. The Arabic says, "I have liberated you. Don’t let anyone enslave you after I have gone." And we’re in. The red, green, and black flags are a clear sign that this is a Shia area. The men of the Mehdi Army allow me to photograph their checkpoint. It’s a tense atmosphere. I can’t believe they’re allowing us to film them. They may despise America, but this one sports a Nike swoosh on his baseball cap. The Mehdi Army is effectively fighting two wars, one against the Sunni militia in Adhamiyah, and another against the Americans. My guide is a soldier of the Mehdi Army. He boasts to me about the American soldiers he says he has recently killed.

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Our last attack was a big one. We sent it sky high—a huge green American tank. It came down to earth with such a bang! How we laughed.

ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): What do you mean?

MAN: It was the size of half a house, huge, with wires all around it.

ABDUL-AHAD: Oh, you mean a "Stryker" vehicle?

MAN: Yes. We blew it up in Faraj Market near the building. Do you remember, Jaffar?

MAN 2 (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): I heard about it, yes.

MAN: Only two American soldiers survived, but we went back and finished them off. They all died.

ABDUL-AHAD: How many big attacks like that have you carried out?

MAN: Oh, loads. Too many to count.

ABDUL-AHAD: You use the so-called "new explosives"?

MAN: No, we make our own. We have specialists bomb-makers who make IEDs for us. We buy them for $100 to $200 each.

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ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Like all militiamen, he likes to exaggerate. But there’s no doubt he’s a killer, so I’m not going to argue with him now. Finally, we reach the wall. The graffiti and militia have changed, but it’s the same wall, the same footbridge, the same grief. This Mehdi soldier tells me why he hates the other side. He says they planted a car bomb which killed his father.

MAN: May God’s mercy be upon my father.

ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Where was the car from?

MAN: People who were there told me that they saw a woman from the other side park the car.

ABDUL-AHAD: From the other side?

MAN: Yes, from the other side.

ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Even when he thought the cameras weren’t recording him, I could see my guide was still deep in denial about his killing of other Iraqis.

MAN: They’re the ones who started this. We all worship the same God. Why are they being sectarian?

ABDUL-AHAD: And later he went into full-on militiaspeak.

MAN: If we’ve received orders from our leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, we are ready. We are ready to defeat even America in just a few days, just as Nasrallah—may God keep him safe—broke the back of Israel. We can break American backs the same way. I myself am ready to be a suicide bomber.

ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Aren’t you scared?

MAN: No, I’m not scared. I’m not scared at all.

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ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): I spot a family who have been watching us from their front door as we film with the militiamen. What do they think of the wall, I wonder?

ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Hello, there. How is it living on the frontline of all the fighting?

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): That’s an old story, thank God. It’s much quieter now.

ABDUL-AHAD: Were you hit by the mortars?

MAN: Oh, that was when there was a lot of sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shias. But now it’s okay.

ABDUL-AHAD: So now they have cut the area in half. How is it?

MAN: Yes, the Americans built the wall, and this is not good.

ABDUL-AHAD: It’s not good?

MAN: They should remove it. It’s not good at all. People should go back to the way they lived before.

ABDUL-AHAD: Why? Do you think the wall has divided this part of Baghdad?

MAN: Yes, these walls cause a lot of harm.

ABDUL-AHAD: Before, was this all one area?

MAN: Yes, it was one area. People would come and go. We have relatives and friends who have been separated by this wall.

~~~

ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Later, back in the safety of my hotel, the faces and voices of Adhamiyah and Qahira stay with me. Baghdad was never a beautiful city, but its people were kind and generous. Now it seems as if a poison has entered the city’s psyche—a ferocious ability to hate. What will be left for the next generation when the Americans leave?

DISCLAIMER:

Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.